The meetings industry went through a period where after-hours events dropped off a bit, in both frequency and scale, likely because of lower attendance and tighter budgets.
Today, planners are increasingly emphasizing after-hours events and trying harder to make them more interesting, mainly to market meetings to a different demographic.
The oldest millenials are now in their late 30s and well established in their careers, and Gen Z frontrunners will soon be starting theirs. Planners are recognizing that “younger people are coming in with different needs; they have a different set of takeaways they’re looking for, and if you want to be relevant to them, you have to fulfill those needs,” said Tim Nelson, director of convention services for Experience Grand Rapids.
That includes giving them authentic, hyperlocal experiences that give attendees a sense of place before they leave a destination.
“We are seeing events that seem to be a little more immersive, a little more interactive,” Nelson said. “There has to be an experience in it, and going to a banquet is not an experience.”
After-hours events have always been popular, said Kristin McGrath, vice president of sales, services and sports for Visit Albuquerque, but “a lot of our meeting planners are looking for things that are unique to the destination: special cultural experiences that will allow attendees to get a feel for the city.”
Planners who want their attendees to experience the destination can do so by creating memorable after-hour events “because everyone has done the ballroom-reception and go-back-to-your-room thing,” said Jamie Koshofer, vice president of conventions for the Huntsville/Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Food is one of the best ways to showcase a destination. In Huntsville, Alabama, Stovehouse is a century-old stove-factory-turned-food-hall where visitors can meander among local restaurants, cocktail lounges and coffee bars and gather in an 85-person event room or outdoor event space.
In Grand Rapids, Michigan, Downtown Market is a foodie mecca that’s home to over 20 indoor market vendors, two full-service restaurants, hands-on cooking classes, private event rentals, an incubator kitchen and rooftop greenhouses. Groups can do a food scavenger hunt at various vendors and then come together with their finds to garnish cocktails or contribute to a cooking demonstration.
Adult beverages are always popular, and incorporating them into events “appeals to multiple generations — it doesn’t really matter your age,” Nelson said.
Grand Rapids is known as Beer City USA, so “we build a lot of events around the breweries,” he said. In downtown, nine breweries are within walking distance or easy to reach on the city’s free shuttle service. Several times over the years, the CVB has arranged beer passports for attendees as they bar hop. Because attendees aren’t traveling as a group, “that means your group is changing as people drift in and out of breweries at different times, interacting with different people at different breweries,” Nelson said.
With more than 50 breweries in and around Asheville, North Carolina, the city’s craft brew culture is well known. Asheville Brews Cruise and Asheville Brewery Tours offer custom private tours and take large groups from brewery to brewery.
Janis Ross, vice president of convention and sports marketing for Travel Lane County, always recommends that groups have dinner at one of Eugene, Oregon’s vineyards to take in vistas and vino. The King Estate Winery’s restaurant uses seasonal ingredients from the estate’s 30 acres of organic gardens and orchards. Sweet Cheeks Winery and Vineyard also offers scenic views, live music and food options.
Even if the banquet doesn’t leave the ballroom, planners can easily bring in local flavor and food traditions. New Mexico is known for its red and green chile, and a lot of meeting attendees are disappointed if they don’t get a chance to taste the chile or have a server ask at least once if they want “Christmas style,” with both red and green on the same plate.
In Grand Rapids, a ballroom banquet can feature local beer flights or beer-and-food pairings, both of which lend themselves to food stations to keep people moving and interacting.
Group With a View
Asheville is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and though its downtown is relatively small, it boasts nine rooftop bars, many perched atop hotels. Asheville Rooftop Bar Tours takes groups to three or four rooftop bars in one outing, and guides blend in city history and sightseeing.
“Asheville is a beautiful mountain destination, and many of [the rooftop bars] are looking west and offer that mountain sunset view,” said Carli Adams, group communications and services manager for Explore Asheville.
Ten 3 restaurant opened in August in Albuquerque, New Mexico: 10,300 feet above sea level at the top of Sandia Peak. Guests ride an aerial tramway to the summit, where the restaurant serves up a panoramic view of the Rio Grande Valley and city lights sparkling below.
Grand Rapids’ DeVos Place Convention Center sits on the Grand River, and Gillett Bridge sits right outside the center’s doors. Several groups have held evening events on the pedestrian bridge, which “ties in the river, speaks to our heritage and puts people in a nontraditional situation,” Nelson said. Some groups have even done fly-fishing demos on the bridge during dinner or held a duck race — dropping rubber ducks from the bridge — as a fundraiser.
“It’s putting people into a situation that surprises them a little bit and is unique to us,” Nelson said.
Join the Party
One of the easiest ways to get creative with after-hours events is to use what’s already happening in town. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque holds its Party on Patio every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night year-round, and groups can join the fun to taste pizza baked in a horno oven, listen to Native American musicians and mingle with the locals.
“It’s a great way to immerse yourselves in the culture, and it’s a more localized experience,” McGrath said.
If a planner has enough flexibility in meeting dates, local festivals typically mean built-in food and evening entertainment options, which makes them “a great tie-in, either for attendees to extend their stay or plan your event around,” Koshofer said.
Campus 805 in Huntsville is a former middle school that’s been converted into an entertainment district where groups will find an axe-throwing experience, a ballroom dance studio, a pinball arcade, a painting studio and X-Golf, which has several indoor golf simulators.
When a well-known band was playing at the Orange Peel, a music venue in downtown Asheville, a meeting group decided to buy tickets for attendees, and the Isis Music Hall is housed in a 1937 movie theater in West Asheville. Groups can reserve both venues for events and host private concerts.
Soak Up the Culture
As part of preparation efforts to welcome the world track and field championships in 2021, Eugene officials launched 20×21, a public mural initiative, and commissioned 20 outdoor murals by internationally renowned artists. About 10 murals are complete, and groups can take evening walking tours to see the artwork with stops along the way for drinks and appetizers.
Huntsville has created an arts and entertainment district in downtown where people can walk around with an adult beverage in a purple cup. Throughout the year, organizations like Downtown Huntsville and Arts Huntsville partner to create art events and “experiences,” like 35 miniature golf holes dotted around downtown.
One of Albuquerque’s most unusual experiences is Tablao Flamenco Albuquerque, an intimate theater in the heart of historic Old Town. The wooden stage was specially built for flamenco dance and is miked to enhance the stomps.
“A lot of attendees have not personally witnessed flamenco dance, and in this theater, they’re able to get really close to the dancers and see their expressions and their feet,” McGrath said.
Visit Albuquerque has also received requests from planners “to bring some culture to the banquets,” so the organization will often arrange for performances by flamenco dancers or Native American musicians or dancers.
Evening events don’t have to be indoors. Near downtown Eugene, the Spencer Butte Challenge Course offers after-hours events on its ropes course among towering trees. If they’re willing to take an afternoon drive to the Oregon coast, attendees can experience the soaring sand dunes during a dune buggy tour. Several operators offer small sandrails that seat four to eight or large buggies that can hold 25 people. Though the large buggies are slower than the speedy sandrails, they still deliver plenty of gritty thrills when cresting dunes, some of which are 500 feet high.
“You’re riding out on these giant sand dunes and seeing the ocean and scenery and sunset,” Ross said. More adventurous groups can try sandboarding — like snowboarding but on sand — at Sand Master Park in Florence, where they can also take a sand-sculpting class. A planner could hold a meeting at the oceanfront Driftwood Shores Resort and Conference Center in Florence and end the night with s’mores roasted over bonfires on the beach.
Asheville Wellness Tours offers evening yoga hikes. The group sets out for a short hike followed by a yoga session. And because of downtown’s proximity to the mountains, a short drive takes groups to many trailheads for evening hikes.